By Mike Hudson, The Niagara Falls Reporter
Whose side are they on?
Are Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster and state Assemblyman John Ceretto looking out for the interests of the people who voted them into office, or are they instead ready to throw city taxpayers under the bus to protect the interest of Gov. Andrew Cuomo?
Recently, our friend Ken Hamilton linked to an article we ran last week concerning freshman state Sen. Robb Ortt’s proposal to reverse the shares received by the city and the state in revenue from the Seneca Niagara Casino on his Facebook page, Niagara Community Forum.
Ortt held a press conference on November 23, saying he would introduce legislation changing the split from the current 75 percent of slot machine revenue going to Albany with the city getting 25 percent, to one where the city of Niagara Falls got the larger cut.
In a November 30 letter to Cuomo, Ortt said strict controls would have to be implemented for his funding formula to go into effect.
“This cannot simply be another good program or a blank check to the city,” he wrote. “The original intent of the local funding formula was to create local jobs, but that clearly didn’t happen, much to my frustration.”
The reason for the failure is simple, Ortt told the governor.
“The city diverted tens of millions from economic development to cover operating expenses and other projects not related to creating jobs,” he wrote. The population declined while taxes and poverty increased.”
Scott Kiedrowski, Ortt’s chief of staff, told the Niagara Falls Reporter that the senator, along with Dyster, Ceretto and representatives from Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital, the school district and other stakeholders in the casino revenue, had been meeting regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest.
Ortt wanted to fill everyone in on the details of his plan prior to making a public announcement, Kiedrowski said, but Dyster and Ceretto didn’t show up.
Since the casino opened, the state has raked in some $600 million, while the financially strapped city has collected just $183 million, Ortt said.
“The fiscally-strained city deserves a bigger piece of the pie to strengthen key stakeholders and regain solid financial footing. Flipping the formula makes sense and should be feasible,” Ortt said. “Considering the state’s surplus, along with the dire need of jobs and support in Niagara Falls, the time is now.”
The money could allow the city to reduce the property tax rate to zero, and still allow for unprecedented infrastructure improvements, the wholesale demolition and rehabilitation of vacant, abandoned houses, businesses and industrial sites and make the city an attractive place.
Such a move would make national headlines, and bring new business and homebuyers from all over the country to Niagara Falls. Ortt’s simple piece of legislation could, in a matter of days, reverse the city’s decline and turn it into once of the fastest growing municipalities in America.
Being daily newspapers, the Buffalo News covered Ortt’s announcement in an article on November 24, and the Niagara Gazette got around to it the next day. The Niagara Falls Reporter published an analysis piece on November 27.
In it, we stated that it was somewhat strange that neither Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster nor state Assemblyman John Ceretto had backed the specifics of Ortt’s planned legislation which would see the city they allegedly serve rake in three times as much revenue from the casino than it does now.
Anyway, Hamilton’s Facebook link to the story which was commented on almost immediately by Rob Nichols, a political operative from Lewiston and close personal friend of Ceretto’s, who made a disparaging remark about Ortt.
“Is it true that Ceretto has not commented on this?” Hamilton asked Nichols.
Ceretto did in fact comment. He just didn’t say anything. With the courage of conviction of a man who was a Democrat who turned Republican and then changed back into a Democrat, he said he wanted to know more about Ortt’s proposal.
“Of course I’d be interested in helping the city, but I’d suggest Rob Ortt get a hold of us and talk to us,” Ceretto told the Buffalo News.
“I didn’t know about this plan,” he told the Gazette, despite the fact that the News had run a major article on it the day before. “Anytime you’re fighting for monies for our area, it’s a good thing — but it works better when working as a team.”
So instead of saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’m in favor of the biggest city in my district getting three times the money it is now,” Ceretto backhanded Ortt for not calling him before making his announcement.
But Ortt had in fact called. He had scheduled a meeting on the subject Ceretto had chosen not to attend.
Amazingly, after repeated attempts by the Niagara Falls Reporter to contact him for this edition were unsuccessful, Ceretto issued a statement Wednesday on the matter, but stopped short of endorsing the planned bill, saying he needs more information.
“I have reached out to the senator’s office for more information, and I look forward to reviewing the details and specifics of this proposal to see if it is the best option for our community.”
Dyster refused to return calls seeking comment from both the News and the Gazette, but in a stroke of genius, the Niagara Falls Reporter called him Tuesday using an out of state number he was unfamiliar with.
He picked up his phone and this reporter identified himself, then asked the all-important question.
“Have you been in contact with Sen. Ortt about his casino revenue plan?” I asked.
“I…I… I’ll have to get back to you on that,” he stammered.
The phone went dead in my ear.
It’s been nine days now since Ortt announced his plan, and the silence coming from both the Ceretto and Dyster camps – otherwise known as the Cuomo camp — has been deafening.
That $600 million that Albany got for Niagara Falls having a casino bought a lot of something. We’re not certain what exactly it bought, or for whom, but the long silence of Ceretto and Dyster speaks volumes.